SALTY SPEAKS TO CATRIONA MCKENZIE – DIRECTOR OF SATELLITE BOY

Recently I got the privilege of a 15min interview with the director for the recently released Australian film SATELLITE BOY, CATRIONA MCKENZIE.

CATRIONA MCKENZIE’s directorial feature debut, SATELLITE BOY, is a heartfelt, moving and uplifting story about a young boy’s journey to save his home and ultimately himself. For the review on Salty clickety click right HERE.

McKenzie is one of the nicest, most down to earth people, I have ever interviewed and her tales of sitting under the stars and doing near impossible things during what could eventually be called hardcore filming to achieve this film was phenomenal. The locations used for the film are just stunning and embrace the Australian outback like no other and this is the first film every granted permission to film in the remote area of The Bungle Bungles in WA. I have never actually interviewed someone who opened their entire heart and soul for an interview but she started personal and stayed that way and gave me one of the greatest understandings behind the motivations of a film. I had never really pondered why a director chooses a certain film over others, and now, for this film, I know why and I love the film that little bit for this.

 

Catriona McKenzie is interviewed by Salty Popcorn for Satellite Boy
Catriona McKenzie is interviewed by Salty Popcorn for Satellite Boy

 

McKenzie graduated with Honors from the prestigious Australian Film, Television and Radio School (whose alumni include Jane Campion, Gillian Armstrong) in 2001. Since graduating she has an directed a number of outstanding television series including the Emmy nominated Dance Academy; Logie and AFI award-winner My Place (series 1 and 2) for ABC TV; as well as Satisfaction for Showtime. Catriona was lead director on the award-winning SBS series’ The Circuit and RAN: Remote Area Nurse, as well as The Alice (Nine) and Fireflies (ABC TV).

Most recently, Catriona was lead director on the highly anticipated series Redfern Now, which was developed in collaboration with the internationally acclaimed creator Jimmy McGovern (The Street, Cracker, The Lakes). She is currently in production on the television drama series,The Gods of Wheat Street, for Every Cloud Productions and the ABC.

With critically acclaimed and award-winning short films including Box, The Third Note, Road and Redfern Beach, Catriona also wrote and directed the multi-award winning documentary Mr Patterns (ABC TV) and directed the half hour drama Grange (ABC TV). In 2007, Catriona spent time as a director’s attachment on the television series Prison Break (Fox).

In 2006, her script for SATELLITE BOY was accepted into the coveted Aurora Script Development Program which had previously developed Animal Kingdom, The Black Balloon, Somersault and Little Fish.

Interview with Catriona McKenzie:

Pleasantries out of the way….

SP (me): Why SATELLITE BOY, I mean what was the inspiration for this film?

CM: Satellite Boy is a love letter to my father, I am adopted so, you know when I met him, he was an older man, kind of like a grandfather but he raised me. When I met my biological mum I guess there was a couple of year where I turned away from him, mum and dad, because I was looking for my biological mum. I suppose Satellite Boy is a way of saying “Dad I get it, I get the fact that love is not the impossible dream and love is actually the day to day grind and the patient wisdom that graces grandparents”. That’s part of it but I also wanted to a film that’s distilled so that the audience had the opportunity to feel, feel what it is to be in the country, feel what it is to be out there. I do a lot of television and TV is about wham bam, plot points, narrative, drive, it’s full and it’s in your face and it doesn’t allow the audience any space to just get lost in the film so I really wanted to do a film that took the audience on a feeling journey an experience journey rather than just a cerebral journey. It’s an allegorical film, an allegorical tale.

SP: So from what you just said, and that’s a beautiful explanation but does that mean you are the Pete (Cameron Wallaby) in the film?

CM: Yeah, I guess that’s right, he lives with his grandfather, his grandfather is trying to teach him, little boy doesn’t want to know, he just wants his mum and then he goes on a journey with his mate and everything his grandfather has been trying to teach him that he has rejected actually saves their lives and when his mother comes back at the end of the film he’s got a choice – it’s like an existential choice – everyone’s got that choice – who do you want to be in life ? It’s a film that works on lots of different levels.

SP: I spent a bit of time travelling through the Northern Territory so I found it very interesting to hear about some of your harrowing tales of filming, like driving 200ks for a packet of screws etc (laughs) so have you got any tales of woe you can share with us?

CM: I don’t know if it’s tales of woe – I mean I am always up for an adventure and I think that if you’re a film maker in Australia you don’t get served lobster for lunch. You know I packed my house in Sydney and grabbed my two and half year old son and flew to Broome and we threw swags on top of the car and the casting director, Johnny, Claire and myself we just started to drive from Broome to Wyndham to Kununurra driving thousands and thousands and thousands of kilometres to find the two boys and we were sleeping on the side of the road with our little fire and it was very low budget affair and I guess you could say that was harrowing but it was also beautiful – you know what it’s like if you’ve been up that way, you have your fire and the sparks go flying up into the sky towards the Milky Way – and that first night, my son lying in his swag and he’s only two and a half and he says “where’s the ceiling mummy” and I answered “the stars are the ceiling baby, there’s no ceiling”. That was beautiful, not really harrowing. We were the first feature film on the ground in the Bungle Bungles. I mean Australia (the Baz film) did aerials over it but we were actually on the ground and I mean we couldn’t drive any equipment in because it’s world heritage listed and so we had to walk everything in. People’s shoes were bubbling with the heat as it was so hot, and it was 8litres of water per person per day because that’s how hot it was. And no one complained, the crew were fantastic, they were staying in tents because we couldn’t afford accommodation and the place in Wyndham is where five rivers come together and the place is swarming with big salt water crocodiles and it’s wooly country but it’s beautiful and you know, with all that stuff, no one complained and it was part of an adventure and it was a very small crew, it was like family.

 

CAMERON WALLABY as PETE in SATELLITE BOY. Photo by Matt Nettheim
CAMERON WALLABY as PETE in SATELLITE BOY. Photo by Matt Nettheim

 

SP: With the Bungle Bungles, how did you guys manage to get permission to film there?

CM: One of the other things about this film that I am really proud of is that the process of making the film followed cultural protocols so there are really traditional owners across the region and we sat down with all of them, we talked through the script, we showed them the script, we talked through any potential issues. We left it with them for a long time and we did not rush them and we did the same with the Bungle Bungles as there were two traditional groups and we just sat down with them and we respectfully listened and these things can’t be rushed so we stayed respectful in the way that we let them show us the way to go and we got that permission and it blows me away because we were the first to ever do it and it wasn’t rocket science, it was a respectful process and I just loved the footage in the film……….

SP: It’s just stunning……it looks so good on screen

SP: I was reading that you wrote the first script in 2006, how do you maintain the motivation on a 7yr project? 

CM: Well I wrote one version of the script and it was polished and ready to go and then I threw it away and I started again, so it wasn’t quite 7yrs and that’s why I do television as well as film. You just have to be incredibly tenacious. The way I approach things is that I just want to die a happy woman and so I know it might be painful now but it’s not going to be as painful as lying on my deathbed having regrets. And that’s the sort of commitment you’ve got to have if you want to be a film maker in this country. You just have to bite down and be a dog with a bone and people didn’t think we could do this film with the budget and you have to get bond guarantor for the film and only one film would give it to us and nobody thought we would finish it with the money we had and it’s easy to be a film maker when you have all the money piled at your feet but what’s hard is when you don’t and you have to fall back on your creative ingenuity to get the job done and that’s the satisfying thing about SATELLITE BOY. The other side of that is we didn’t actually have enough money at the long stretch and it’s called SATELLITE BOY and we couldn’t afford a satellite and so one of the beautiful things that happened was that the community of Wyndham said “here, we’ll donate steel and we’ll donate this” and they helped us build the cinema screen and build the cinema and the satellite dish and the whole community rallied around the film and I guess the really beautiful thing about that is that I’ve got family and friends now in Wyndham that are part of that film now as well. The very first film we did was in Wyndham in the Walk In Cinema and we did a little red hessian premiere. All the kids were there, Joseph (Kalmain) Pedley’s from Wyndham and the families were there and there were more people at the screening than there were population in the town and they all loved it and the next day all the kids from the town were quoting lines from the film and they were really proud to be Aboriginal and they were really into it and that’s a huge reward for me because you usually make things for yourself but they are bigger than you and they end up belonging to more people because that’s the way we  make films so that was a byproduct of not having enough resources.

SP: What was it about Cameron and Joseph that got them the part out of so many kids?

CM: Well, we were in Fitzroy Crossing and we were waiting for people to come in for auditions and it was a bit slow going and we walked outside and there was this kid playing with boab nuts under a tree and we asked to come in for an audition and Cameron was only 10yrs old at the time and he hadn’t read the script and he just did this little improvisation with his cousin, Pumpkin, and he basically created this room, it was four walls and he created this little world and this incredible imagination and he was quite un-self-conscious even though there was a camera there and I was filming him. So that was the first thing and you know Joseph Pedley is an extraordinary young man, he plays football, he’s outgoing, he’s got his head screwed on and he’s a bit of a leader in the community and he was twelve. I mean it was a long series of workshops and auditions, you know….shenanigans to pick those guys but they have this incredible chemistry and they didn’t know each other from Jack but in the film it feels like they have known each other for ever.

With the film it’s all about feeling and Cameron’s got a wonderful feeling, he’s got a fragility but he’s also very sympathetic and together they just work.

SP: Why SATELLITE BOY, the title? What does it mean?

CM: (Laughter) Everyone is asking me this……………

SP: I know in the film he sits on a satellite and they talk about the stars but there’s got to be some meaning you’ve got for it.

CM: Basically, at the beginning of the film, the grandfather says when the little boy goes to run away “where are you going, you are always running away, who are you?”. So at the beginning of the film this kid is always moving like a satellite and running away and he doesn’t know who he is or where he belongs but by the end of the film he knows where he is, he knows where he needs to be.

 

DAVID GULPILIL as JAGAMARRA and CAMERON WALLABY as PETE in SATELLITE BOY. Photo by Matt Nettheim
DAVID GULPILIL as JAGAMARRA and CAMERON WALLABY as PETE in SATELLITE BOY. Photo by Matt Nettheim

 

SP: So like the satellite in the film that goes across the sky, this is him and he does his lap of the place and comes back?

CM: That’s it (with laughter)

SP: Did your end result reproduce your original vision?

CM: Well, umm that’s an interesting question (pauses) – are you going to edit this?

SP: (In laughter) Most of it to make it tighter and neater, I won’t just play the entire sound file to everyone…………. (and it is edited – a lot. No one speaks so smoothly and assuredly and I say ummmmm way too much :))

CM: OK, we didn’t have enough, we couldn’t finish the film because I had this really tight script and in the end we couldn’t quite do the transition from the second act to the third act so we had to drop some scenes. This was a significant turning points of the film that were not the way they were written because we couldn’t afford time and travel to do it and that was a bit of a heartbreak but like I said, you know, like I said, that’s the thing about being a film maker, you find creative ways around lack of resources. So I am proud of that and I think, for the resources we had, I am really happy with the film and the process behind the film is pure and full of heart and I think that reflects in the film.

SP: OK – who are your biggest inspirations in the world of film making?

CM: WOW – OK – for SATELLITE BOY there was WALKABOUT and STAND BY ME – they are two outstanding films. I mean, I LOVE Peter Weir as a film maker, I love him, I just think his films have such heart, such grace. He’s a consummate film maker. There’s great film makers out there – I mean there is Tarkovsky, the great Russian film maker, and he did this film called STALKER (1979) where he takes these two tourist guys into the zone and they go on this journey, and it’s a pretty trippy journey and I suppose there’s a touch of that in SATELLITE BOY when they’re kind of tripping out in the bush. But Peter Weir for me, he tops the cake.

SP: Last question, favourite film and why?

CM: Ummm, in the world, Australia or everything?

SP: Everything – your Number 1

CM: (without hesitation at all) – BLADE RUNNER

SP: Oh awesome choice

CM: It might not be as arty or as esoteric as others but I just love it. The directors cut without the voice over for me is just wow. It is about that thing, who are we, what is it to be human, the human spirit. I mean I love it for that.

SP: That’s it all – thanks so much for everything – the film is amazing and a pleasure to watch and this talk was amazing

CM: Too easy – thank you

Here was exchanged farewells and she went on to the next interviewer in the hundred or so queued up and I sat there for about 10mins just thinking about the interview and how just that small talk that let me in to a bit of the universe of SATELLITE BOY brought me a little bit closer to it.

I loved the film and wish it all the best – like I have said – it is OUT NOW – so get yo butt to a cinema and watch it and read my review, see some pics and watch the trailer HERE.